Living in America

Meet the neighbors

Because of this, no one is anxious to put a number on how many illegals are here. Estimates run from 10,000 to 10 times that, but state demographer Tom Gillaspy says more data will be coming later this year. "For 1990, we ended up figuring there were 13,000 unauthorized here," Gillaspy notes. "We could guess that the figure would be close to 60,000 in 2000." Nationwide, some 2.7 million Latinos are believed to be in the United States illegally.


But the phenomenon is nothing new. Latinos, and Mexicans in particular, arrived in Minnesota as far back as 1860 as migrant workers. The 1900 census, however, identified only 24 Mexicans living in Minnesota. Over time, the number of Mexicans arriving increased, and by the 1930s as many as three-quarters of migrant workers in the state--some 18,000--were Mexican Americans, the offspring of the original migrant workers. The laborers, contributing mainly to the state's sugar industry in the Red River Valley, were allowed to work in the state legally, but the industries were seasonal, and few stayed in Minnesota year round.

Bill Cameron

But as farming became more mechanized in the latter half of the 20th century, the workers developed factory skills, and by the 1950s there was a burgeoning Latino community on St. Paul's West Side. For the next 30 years, Mexicans working mainly in the area's slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants continued to grow on the West Side and St. Paul's East Side.

By the 1990s, as family farms gave way to factory farms, more Latinos arrived and stayed in Minnesota, almost single-handedly providing labor for the many meat-processing plants that were soon scattered throughout rural towns. More importantly, for all the talk about NAFTA sucking jobs from the U.S. to Mexico, the opposite has been equally true. U.S. businesses have taken over farming and factories in Mexico, leaving Mexican small-business owners looking for work. And they come to the United States to work in the food plants and factories, or to open restaurants and markets in the urban centers.

Just considering official counts of legal residents, the numbers are impressive--if already a little dated. More than 30,000 documented workers live in rural Minnesota, but the change on the Twin Cities has been just as profound. For the first time, the official number of Latinos living in Minneapolis has surpassed the number living in St. Paul, by a margin of 29,000 to 22,000. On Lake Street, in particular, the effect has been evident. It's estimated that there are now 190 Latino-owned businesses along and around the city's main corridor, contributing some $160 million annually to the city's tax base.

Claudia Fuentes, director of Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research (HACER, an acronym that is also the Spanish verb "to make"), says the valuable contribution Latinos have made to the state's economy has been willfully ignored. Fuentes has a special distaste for the conventional view of the undocumented worker. "Here's what I say to that: Give the undocumented workers work permits," Fuentes says. "Everybody knows they're here. It's disingenuous, because legislators are banking that Latinos don't vote, but white blue-collars do. I say, let's have a serious dialogue about this." (Since I talked to Fuentes in May, her words have proven prophetic. Republican-backed legislation that would grant legal status to many of these workers--touted by Arizona Senator John McCain--was making its way through Congress in August, just in time for the next major election cycle.)

Fuentes and others will note that Latinos, here legally or not, work the jobs most white Americans don't want: dishwashers, hotel maids, roofers. "We need the Latino workers, and the politicians and businessmen know it," Fuentes insists, saying companies actively recruit workers in Mexico. "American businesses are addicted to the undocumented worker."

Fuentes argues that many businesses know that they employ illegal immigrants. They also know that Latinos register for work with stolen Social Security numbers. The paychecks come with taxes taken off the top, and little chance that the undocumented worker will file a return. More importantly, Fuentes says, undocumented workers come cheap.

Fuentes points to a September 2000 study done by James Kielkopf, a market researcher in the Twin Cities. In "The Economic Impact of Undocumented Workers in Minnesota," Kielkopf wrote that the jobs that regularly attract undocumented workers are mainly in the service industries, construction, roofing, maintenance, landscaping, and meat processing. Kielkopf estimates that these industries employ anywhere from 18,000 to 48,000 undocumented workers in Minnesota, contributing as much as $3.8 billion to the state's economy each year.

Kielkopf goes on to claim that undocumented labor accounts for 2.4 percent of the state's gross domestic product, and that if illegals were removed from Minnesota, economic growth would be reduced by 40 percent. Finally, Kielkopf estimates that undocumented labor results in $1.02 billion in tax revenue, with $311 million going to Social Security, and another $345 million going to state and local taxes. "That means that unless government costs have increased by more than a billion dollars due to the undocumented labor presence," Kielkopf summarizes, "they provide a net gain, not loss, to Minnesota taxpayers."

Outside of tax revenue, Fuentes points out that money made here by illegals is largely spent here. "They put this money right back into the state's economy," she says. National studies have shown that while $9 billion in personal income made by undocumented workers annually goes back to Mexico, it is only 15 percent of the money Mexicans contribute to the U.S. economy. Through spending and taxes, undocumented workers contribute some $60 billion to the economy each year.

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